Empress, by Shan Sa

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Two and a half stars, read in December 2016. Translated from French.

This was a little dry; at times it felt like reading a catalog. A thousand horses in the parade, a thousand ministers, a thousand concubines, a thousand drums, and so on, sometimes for two or three pages. It made for easy skimming, though, which means I probably would have given up if I’d been listening to audio (and therefore unable to control the pace). It’s the story of Empress Wu, the only female emperor of China and a hugely controversial figure (not remotely surprising).

It’s narrated by the empress beginning in her childhood, and though she was easy to relate with while she was young, there came a point at which I realized this was not a person I could really understand. She’s no better or worse than anyone else in this sort of high-powered position—I just couldn’t stop thinking about how despicable it is the way societies are set up, with a few (generally terrible, ruthless, power-hungry) people controlling the lives of millions according to their own personal whims—e.g., it would have been nearly impossible for me to keep track of all the people who were killed, tortured, or exiled on the most ridiculous pretexts. Questioning the emperor, being distantly related to someone who questions the emperor, being someone the emperor has a sexual relationship with. This is not a book that’s going to make you identify closely with it’s characters, I don’t think; at least it didn’t for me.

Mostly I was interested because she was a real woman in history who had a lot of power, but has since been forgotten. I’m not sure how much of the ending was fictionalized, but the idea is that because she was so controversial (just by being a woman), and because there was nothing but constant, vicious rivalry among the emperor’s court, she became invisible the second she was out of power and no longer could control her own legacy. This is such a significant part of history for women, though, as we’ve spent the last several centuries having our stories erased, and then men go on pretending as though the lack of stories is just because women don’t do anything. It’s not true, and it never has been. There was a woman being emperor of fucking China in the seventh century A.D. That’s not nothing. It’s not.

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